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Thor Hushovd may have taken the green points jersey at the Tour de France last month, but the powerful Norwegian sprinter had to wait until today's tricky Vuelta stage five finish into Cuenca to take his first major tour stage win of the season. After a number of premature sprints for the line, notably by race leader Brad McGee and Paolo Bettini, the Crdit Agricole sprinter chose his moment with a couple of hundred metres left and won at a canter from Spaniards Miguel Angel Perdiguero and Josep Jufre.
That Hushovd was still in contention given the splits that occurred in the peloton on the third-cat Castillo climb in Cuenca in the last 15km suggests that his form is excellent just now, despite him being seen off by Alessandro Petacchi on the last couple of stages. Today the Italian was one of those dropped on the Castillo, although he and Fassa team-mate Juan Antonio Flecha appeared to be blocked by a crash some time before the summit.
Mountains leader Joaquin Rodriguez led the race over the Castillo, with a host of big names not too far behind him, including defending champion Roberto Heras, CSC's Carlos Sastre and Bettini. Spaniards Samuel Sanchez and Juan Miguel Mercado vainly tried to get clear on the descent back down into Cuenca, where Mercado realised he was better off helping Tom Boonen try to set up Bettini for the victory.
Halfway inside the final kilometre, with Quick Step lining up on one side of the road, McGee attacked down the other. But the Australian was overhauled by Bettini and the chasing pack another two hundred metres on, at which point Hushovd unleashed his final flourish.
The stage featured a couple of notable casualties. Phonak's Quique Gutierrez abandoned after 30km suffering with the effects of two crashes yesterday. More surprisingly, Iban Mayo quit another 50km or so on, his dismal season now at an end according to Euskaltel DS Julian Gorospe.
Gorospe later explained that the Basque climber has been badly affected by sciatica in recent days. Despite treatment from a biomechanical expert this week, the problem has continued to dog him.
That means that Mayo won't be one rider to look for on tomorrow's first summit finish at the Valdelinares ski station. The final climb is rated first-cat on a stage that runs for 217km. Based on what we've seen today, Saunier Duval's Rodriguez looks the form rider, but whoever wins there is sure to be a good indication of the likely overall contenders for this race.
Stage 5, Alcazar de San Juan-Cuenca
1 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole 176km in 3.41.52
2 Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Spa) Phonak
3 Josep Jufre (Spa) Relax
4 Jos Ivan Gutierrez (Spa) Illes Balears
5 David Blanco (Spa) Comunitat Valenciana
6 Unai Yus (Spa) Bouygues Telecom
7 Mauricio Ardila (Col) Davitamon-Lotto
8 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Saunier Duval
9 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel
10 Egoi Martinez (Spa) Euskaltel
11 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros
14 Christian Vande Velde (USA) CSC
16 Brad McGee (Aus) Francaise des Jeux
18 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
21 Paco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears
25 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre-Caffita
30 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel
91 Charly Wegelius (GB) Liquigas-Bianchi 0.51
100 Michael Barry (Can) Discovery Channel 1.24
121 Ian McLeod (SA) Francaise des Jeux 3.38
126 Mathew Hayman (Aus) Rabobank
166 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 7.52
170 Nick Gates (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
1 Brad McGee (Aus) Franaise des Jeux 18.13.53
2 Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita) Cofidis 0.32
3 Rodriguez 0.41
4 Patxi Vila (Spa) Lampre-Caffita 0.42
5 Yus 0.53
6 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 1.05
7 Sastre 1.12
8 Perdiguero 1.17
10 Heras 1.20
14 Simoni 1.25
15 Vande Velde
17 Mancebo 1.31
45 Barry 2.52
92 Landis 9.33
122 Wegelius 12.10
133 McLeod 14.04
135 Hayman 14.07
176 Gates 22.20
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